• The more highly respected an American politician is abroad, the more suspect he is at home. President Obama has raised America’s stature overseas but — nuttiness about his birth certificate aside — this reinforces a sense that he’s “somehow foreign.”
• Americans want some kind of health care reform but refuse to learn anything from “socialistic” Europeans who enjoy cheaper, broader health care with equal or better outcomes. “Socialized medicine? No way!” Ironically, it doesn’t matter that those same foreign Lefties consider our clutter of sometimes contradictory reform proposals hopelessly conservative.
Kay, the BBC World News America correspondent in Washington, D.C., explored these contradictions at the national speakers forum of the Cincinnati Woman’s City Club on March 11.
While George W. Bush’s words and actions created “a real worrying wave of anti-Americanism,” Kay said, much of the world welcomed Obama’s election. “We were pretty bored with hating America” and Obama “said all of the right things.”
He is, however, paying the price at home. Obama’s “rock star” success abroad plays badly with anxious, frustrated Americans who interpret loathing for Dubya as evidence that Bush was somehow right.
It’s a measure of how toxic this antipathy can be that it doesn’t matter that Obama has “actually been pretty darn tough in the rest of the world,” Kay said.
And while there is a renewed appreciation of the potential benefits that a “certain amount of diplomacy” might bring, Obama’s gestures to unfriendly nations generate only “distaste” and “populist anger” among some Americans.
Kay predicted that the strange duality would surface when Obama visits his boyhood home in Indonesia.
Much of the world will appreciate his visit to the most populous Muslim country, while many Americans will interpret it as betrayal in the battle against Islamist terrorists. It doesn’t matter that he attended an Indonesian Catholic school as a child, not a radical Islamic madrasa, she said; it was there, not here.
Moving on to the second puzzling duality, Kay said health care is the “defining issue of this administration.” He said Obama is “stuck” until health insurance reform passes.
Failure will reinforce the sense of Obama “not being able to govern,” and his mistaken attempts at bipartisanship haven’t helped. When you control the White House and Congress, “you don’t give the other party a chance.”
Kay blamed the White House for some of its problems, saying overreaching Democrats failed to appreciate the breadth of public concerns beyond health care and failed to communicate what they were doing and why. It began at the top: Obama “is a little bit intellectually arrogant.”
Compounding this top-down problem is American ignorance of how badly their health access and outcomes stack up against other nations. She cited one survey that put the U.S. behind Costa Rica but ahead of Cuba. “It’s not a pretty picture.”
As she travels the United States, Kay said she senses a pervasive gut-level hostility to being measured against other nations and too many Americans seem to live on “another planet” when it comes to health care. The irony is that even the GOP admits the health system is “broken” and bankruptcy is certain if costs rise as they have.
If Obama wins his health care battle in coming days or weeks, she said, another issue will take on greater importance: “Unemployment will decide the election” in November.
Regardless, Kay said one of the great surprises is the “new confidence” shown by the GOP that seemed so shattered a year ago. This Republican resurgence is fueled by ever-increasing and bitter partisanship, she continued. “The political center is really being squeezed out of American politics.”
Kay blamed cable TV and the Internet for much of the breakdown in remaining comity and polarization. A seemingly nonstop “shout fest” on cable TV and Twitter, Facebook and other social media give extremists a “megaphone” that didn’t exist a few years ago. “They are dragging the parties further apart.”
Meanwhile, both parties are trying to understand the anger that sustains the Tea Party. Kay predicted that GOP fear of this new force might push its candidates so far to the political right that it will “damage the party going into 2012.”